In recent years I’ve been a student of narrative nonfiction, with a focus on history. It’s what I love to read and what I’ve learned to write. In fact, while my two books published by St. Martin’s Press are in the sports/golf category, I also think of them as historical narrative nonfiction.
Now I’m happily working on another nonfiction book that has nothing to do with golf or sports.
Bestselling author Erik Larson (Isaac’s Storm, The Devil in the White City, Dead Wake and other titles) is a master of historical narrative nonfiction, as are Laura Hillenbrand, Daniel James Brown and others.
Larson has shared a lot about his craft in interviews. This is my opportunity to preserve some of his wisdom where I can find it and hopefully guide others with similar interests.
In an interview with Creative Nonfiction, Larson said, “If the story doesn’t come alive for you, it’s not going to come alive for the readers.”
Larson’s agent David Black challenged the author to keep refining his proposal for The Devil in the White City (eight drafts, to be exact) and “concentrate on what makes a powerful story.” A few of those nuggets, according to the author:
“Where is the conflict? Where is the suspense? We’re not talking about making things up; we’re talking about where the story is in real life. Who are your characters? Find the right characters and you’ll have your story.”
The characters don’t usually just show up. You have to look hard and, if you’re Larson, you dig deep in the archives, in places like the Library of Congress.
Chronology is simple and powerful in nonfiction storytelling.
“The detailed chronology is my secret weapon,” Larson said. “Because chronological order is the key to any story. If you simply relate a historical event in chronological order, you have done much more than most historians do.”
Choose and organize your material well and also add some foreshadowing when possible.
‘A Viable Book Idea’
In an interview with The Rumpus, Larson discussed his criteria for settling on a book project. The following is paraphrased.
One, he has to be interested.
Two, it has to have a built-in, organic narrative engine, or arc. (Beginning, middle, end.)
Three: You can have a great narrative, but it also needs enough fine-grained personal detail to tell the story. For Larson, this means a deep, rich reservoir of primary materials–letters, diaries, artifacts and more, because that’s what makes the story come alive.
Lastly, find an idea that has barriers to entry, an approach Larson said he learned when he worked at the Wall Street Journal. In other words, an idea complex enough that no one will do the same book.
The Primary Goal
Larson wrapped up his Rumpus interview with a gem for anyone who writes about history.
“I always try to get across that my primary goal as a writer is not to inform, necessarily,” he said.
“My primary goal is to produce as rich a historical experience as I possibly can. So readers can sink into the past and feel like they’ve spent some time there. That they’ve lived another life, however briefly.”